Lincoln is Not That Good

Before I get to proving that, let me head off a few arguments which will probably be offered in Lincoln’s favor, these being the usual inane claims made by an embarrassingly large chunk of the movie criticism world (and the idiot who is usually walking out of the theater right behind you).  I don’t mean to disprove any of these arguments in fact, it’s just that none of them demonstrate, to me at least, that this movie is any good.

First – “the acting.”  Having already heard at least 100 people affirm something like “Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance was breathtaking”, it would probably be simply contrarian to pretend that it wasn’t.  Clearly, the character of Abraham Lincoln was superbly carried out.  Except that I am in no position (nor are almost any of the critics who assert this, by the way) to say whether it is fair to the original.  I have no idea if that’s “how Lincoln was” – again, I’m a little surprised that people are willing to say such things.  We (presuming we haven’t read very much biography) have no idea “how he was.”  And I don’t doubt that Day-Lewis read lots about him, tried to inhabit the role, and so on.  I know those little profiles that appear is various papers and magazines that explain weird things he did to “become” Lincoln are, for whatever reason, “fascinating” to a certain sort of middle-brow idiot  They’re probably true.  They’re probably exaggerated too.  And I stand by my long-held suspicion that the average member of the public is in no position to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of any actor.  Most are just imitating other people they heard say things like this, people they, for whatever reason, happen to trust.  Or sometimes we’re just saying that we like the person we’re looking at and listening to, and we get that confused with liking how good they are at “acting.”  But I will not say that Daniel Day-Lewis (not any of the rest of the actors) did a bad job.  I myself most enjoyed Tommy Lee Jones’ Congressman Stephens.  I found his moral sternness refreshing ,and not entirely condemned by the usual sorts of pragmatism that must be, and to some extent was, piously appealed to in movies like this.  It reminded me of a character whose name I don’t remember from Kushner’s Angles in America, a mash-up of Marxist/queer-theorist/etc. whose stridency was great, though from the perspective of the play, I don’t think I was supposed to enjoy it.

Next up on the list of things that were good about the movie but mostly irrelevant: the costumes, scenery, set design, etc. etc.  As my worst student writers love to assert as though they’ve said something: “it made you feel like you were actually there.”  But as a colleague of mine used to say – “where else would you have been?” And again, how one would know what it would have felt like to have been “there” is a tough question to answer.  This was really no more than a Mystic Seaport or Colonial Williamsburg version of “there.”  But in that, it was successful.  Clearly an enormous amount of money, talent, skill, workmanship, whatever, went into the spectacle of the film.  I read an interview with the director of the latest Anna Karenina – he said something like “how many carriages rolling up to manor houses do we need to see to know we’re in The Nineteenth Century anyway?”  For Lincoln, the answer is, basically, a lot of them.

Then there is the matter of the script.  Yes, it was well-written.  I certainly respect Tony Kushner’s other work, at least what I’ve read or seen performed.  There was an amusing sort of 19th century rhetorical what-have-you that, at times anyway, sustained my interest independently of the action the dialogue referenced.  Anytime I get to hear the phrase “pettifogging Tammany Hall hucksters” in even a remotely relevant context is bound to please me at some level.

Lastly – the soundtrack.  It’s pleasant enough, in that pseudo-nineteenth-century-romantic sort of way, with hints of modernism that are supposed to generate self-congratulation: somewhere between JFK and The West Wing.  There are the requisite bugles (at some point, they became some sort of signifier of the presidency… I’d be interested to know when, where, and why that has happened in American movies).  The soft moments of recognition of the “horrible human toll” with suitably somberly modulated themes.  It’s all there.

To sum up this part of the review – wherein I have made some show of a reasonable concession to those who profess to have enjoyed this movie: on all matters of craft, things as well in order as regards Lincoln.  The acting, costume design, writing, and soundtrack are all, I suppose, worth the $10.50, or whatever you paid, to see them.  To misquote Thoreau, “the people must have some complicated machinery or other, and hear its din, to satisfy that idea of movies which they have.”  There is the sort of heft to this movie we’ve all been conditioned to expect make it an “Oscar contender.”  It’s also been released at the right time of the year.

If this review were in Latin, all the preceding paragraphs would have been one giant ablative absolute.  These things all being the case, I now shift to the defense of my thesis: “Lincoln is not that good.”

Where to start?  Try the opening scene:

Lincoln is seated on a bench, listening to two very earnest African Americans (one glowing with awe, another more zealous and I suppose radical for that), describing to the as-yet-unrevealed Lincoln (we’re looking at his back) their times of service to the union army, and their desire that both peace and racial equality be achieved soon.  Then two white soldiers show up, and, more or less, profess the same thing.  All four characters begin reciting the Gettysburg Address and the bemused (but of course humble) Lincoln listens on.

Like I said, he’s seated on a bench, but it might as well have been the five-dollar bill.  The light shines on him as though from heaven, and right away, we know, this will be nothing short of hagiography.  I stared in puzzlement at the screen: what is it about scenes like this, and therefore movies like this, that so irk me from their very starts?  What I came up with on this occasion was – the hero of such a movie is immediately and unquestioningly invested with a sort of moral rectitude which he has not earned.  The rule – from the start- seems to me “this is a great man; we will not watch for 2.5 hours as you are shown why, how, where, and when this greatness was made manifest.”  Yes, I know some people really like to watch NFL Films, and I shouldn’t criticize hagiography too much (Dostoevsky himself loved his Russian Lives of the Saints).  Still, I was irked.  All the suspicions I held entering the film were immediately validated by the opening scene.  Here was a movie that would congratulate its protagonist for being great, and then, by reflection, allow us to self-congratulate for acknowledging his greatness.

Lincoln’s greatness is presumed throughout, and vouched for by the sorts of pseudo-historical “moments in the life of a great man” that, even to the Romans reading Livy, seemed hackneyed.  Brutus visits his house late at night, and finds his wife, dutiful as she is, working at the loom.  So too here, we see Lincoln vising the troops, chatting earnestly with one of two African Americans he seems to know about how he’s sure his country can make room for them, even if he doesn’t know or understand them, persuading his son to fight, attempting to stabilize his depressive/manipulative wife, lecturing his cabinet through somewhat tedious expository dialogue about the constitutional conundrums he must resolve, and so on.  And none of this is in the service of historical accuracy.  More to reassure us of the image we already have of the man; imagined microcosms allow confirmation of the macro-history we think we remember from junior high.

Speaking of history from Junior High: something else this movie does to affect that emotion a kind of clichéd use of lighting and color.  A lot of the scenes are made to look like the Daguerreotypes we associate with this historical period.  This is supposed to create some sense of authenticity.  It not so subtly contributes to the hagiographic feel; any romance you may associate with those old pictures is evoked when Lincoln speaks, and then so, of course, you are further confirmed in your belief that he is a great man.

Something else that is presumed from the start – and something directly relevant to the overly simplistic hero-worship of Lincoln himself – is the obvious immorality of slavery.  And don’t get me wrong: slavery is obviously immoral.  There are no arguments that can be given in its defense.  Even so, precious little screen time is devoted to anything like an understanding of either the material reality of slavery for slaves, or the material factors that allowed it to flourish.  On the matter of the lived experience of slavery – we get one vignette of Lincoln’s naïve son asking whether one of his (free) servants was beaten when she was a slave.  As to its material causes, or an explanation of why it was the status quo, we get two glimpses: first, there is a wavering democratic representative who says “I am a prejudiced man” because his brother was killed by a black man, and second, there is the Confederate vice president who declares “this will ruin our economy.”

In failing so utterly to offer any sort of material context for the institution of slavery, we might as well be watching a movie about the Holocaust, gay marriage, the American revolution, or any other obviously wrong historical thing you would like to insert.  The narrative at that point becomes really simple: there are some bad people, people who do not believe in equality, who once tried to preserve some unequal thing.  But then, since we rational, liberal-minded people know, as Lincoln sanctimoniously points out to a couple of his clerks, citing Euclid “things which are equal to the same thing are equal to one another,” we’re supposed to see that there, right at the start of history, was this self-evidence of tolerance-based liberalism, and it’s just taken until now, because of people like you and me, for this thing to come to pass.  Like there’s just something analytically true about human equality (never mind whether our society has anything like human equality at its base) and that for whatever reason, we alone in human history have been able to see this truth clearly.

And why did this thing – slavery – exist in the first place?  The answer (in the movie, just as on “moderate” current-events commentary) comes back: either because of “prejudice” or “the economy.”  What further explanation could be necessary?  Thank goodness, the movie’s narrative seems to show, we have politically astute leaders like Lincoln, who can see our way past such people, and so, we 21st century liberals can understand, always, throughout history, there have been people like us, it’s just, now there are more of them, and so, we can love “how far we’ve come.”

Which brings me to the almost total bankruptcy with which politics is presented in this film.  Maybe bankrupt is the wrong term – better bipolar.  On one extreme, we have the straightforward moral rectitude of Stephens.  On the other, there is the totally depraved and cynical world inhabited by the unsavory characters brought in from Albany to buy votes.  At the outset, we learn that Lincoln is about 20 votes short of the 2/3 majority needed in the House to amend the constitution.  The search for 20 remaining votes is the main action of the movie.  How are they obtained?  Bribery for most, earnest persuasion for a handful.  Then there is this sort of obnoxious pseudo-Weberian Lincoln, who grasps (again, because he is a hero of unquestioned moral rectitude) that there are times when you must sell out, and other things you must declare “here I stand, I can do no other.”  I guess I’ve come to think of this as the West Wing problem.  By refusing to understand the actual grip the status quo has over people, we are forced to listen to supposedly high-minded moral debates, the premises of which are actually so apparent and banal from the start that, once again, nothing is learned, but there is still the idiot behind you in the theater making a pseudo-intellectual “hmm” and stroking his chin.  If such dialogue actually enlightens him, that truly saddens me.

If slavery has no material causes but only its roots in “prejudice”, and politics is merely the passionate assertion of a more-or-less hollow ideal of tolerance, accompanied with a take-no-prisoners realpolitik, what could we possibly learn from such a film?  “Back in those times” again like my worst students love to say, “things were different, now they’re better.”  But if we never come to understand anything beyond the most shallow understandings of either the economics or the psychology of slavery, we will never truly overcome its legacy.  Movies like this allow us to turn a blind eye to the problems of the present, unless they fit neatly into the “prejudices that must be overcome” variety.  And so, this movie really helps nothing more than fights for marriage equality.  I don’t mean to trivialize their importance, but, issues of material inequality among the races are totally absent from a movie like this, and so, we can give ourselves a pat on the back.

But – near the movie’s end, Stephens’ African-American lover reads the text of the amendment: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

What have we done in the 21st century?  African-Americans lives are still, on average, far worse than white people’s, and the level of black males detained in prison now is not that much different from the level of those who were shackled in slavery.  “Except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted” – well, there, it turns out, is a loophole large enough to drive 150 years of continuing oppression through.  And since our national epics refuse to engage in any sort of intelligent discussion about material or psychological foundations of racism, it’s no wonder.

I suppose you could say – why expect this from a movie?  “You’re asking for too much.”  To which I reply – what is it that’s so comfortable to us about moral narratives of this sort, such that we need collectively to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on them every year or so?  Clearly they serve a function.  Why do we expect such mediocrity, except that it implicitly forgives us of our collective guilt over the fact that we live in a radically unequal society?  Yes, our society is better for not having slavery, and yes, Lincoln played some role in that.  But didn’t you already know that?  What could you possibly learn from such a movie?  I submit that the only real purpose of a movie like that is to re-confirm the acceptability of this obviously shallow moral-political worldview.

Simplistic hero-worship, naïve politics overlaid with a professionally and competently executed set of movie elements… I mean, to be fair, this is a Steven Spielberg movie.  What else did I have any right to expect?

[I needn’t say – doubtless the retort will be offered in some quarters – “but it was entertaining!”  Always spoken as though the most interesting of distinctions has just been made.  If you’re feeling a little more wanting to sound complicated, you will say “but it was thoroughly entertaining!”  To which I reply – gentle reader – so apparently, is your Facebook news feed.  Go back to it and stop pretending you know something either about movies, history or entertainment.]

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Lincoln is Not That Good

  1. juan says:

    This is probably the best review I’ve read of this movie so far. I haven’t seen it yet. I’m not too keen on biographical movies usually , that’s why.
    Anyway, this essay is fantastic,congratulations, Josh, you should be a movie critic. I’m not sure whether I would agree with everything you said after seeing the film,maybe Spielberg was just trying to tell the story of how Lincoln got the votes he needed, so it was sort of a suspense movie or something, nothing more. But then it’s not clear why there should have been that atmosphere of implied greatness and serious issues at stake.
    With respect to some of the comments at the beginning, I will state one of my beliefs about acting, which David already knows and which sounds crazy, but is close to some of the things you say, it seems to me. Here it is: there is no such thing as acting talent, and pretty much any person whatsoever could play any role whatsoever, with proper guidance from a director (I am excluding total idiots). So the claim is that any actor (or person off the street, given basic indications) would have been just as good as Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, and so on for any landmark role from the history of cinema. The thesis is unfortunately not verifiable,so I don’t know how to decide between it and its denial (remakes are not a good crucial experiment). It just seems true to me. Maybe because,for me, acting comes down mostly to uttering words in a credible way (and anyone can do that, if you are told how to utter them.

  2. David says:

    I haven’t seen the movie, and, after reading Josh’s review, I’m in no hurry to see it. Anyway, I recall several drunken disagreements with Juan’s (deliberately?) extreme claim about acting. Although I don’t find great actors nearly as impressive, from an artistic point of view, as great artists in other mediums, I do think that some actors are better than others, and not simply because they receive better ‘direction.’ In other words: I totally disagree with the claim that the typical man-in-the-street could do as good a job as Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon. So, on what grounds? Since I’m not an actor, and don’t really know what actors ‘do,’ why I am so confident that some actors ‘do what(ever) they do’ better than other actors and, certainly, non-actors? Here’s one off-the-cuff consideration in support of my conviction (I leave it to you to tell me whether it carries any weight). If just about anyone could act, then directors would have figured this out by now. In other words, it’s reasonable to think that directors are in a much better epistemic position than you, Juan, to determine whether acting boils down to ‘saying your lines.’ But I know of no directors who are indifferent to ‘casting,’ or approach their work with the attitude that it doesn’t really matter at the end of the day who speaks the lines (as long as they are not idiots and as long as they meet the basic specifications of the role). Quite the opposite. So I guess I’d put this question to you: why, if your claim about acting is right, are directors so pervasively confused?

    One more thing: ‘uttering words in a credible way’ may be considerably more difficult than you imply. It might be that, for reasons that are still unclear to us, some are much better able to pull this off than others, and the former we call great actors.

    And oh yeah: great to hear from you, Juan!

    • Juan says:

      Thanks for replying, David. I have some scattered remarks to make:

      1. First, a lame but it seems to me true, leftist observation: a lot of films today are a business. So directors may know that anyone could do the job, but have no interest in advertising such strange views, when they know that the film is only going to make loads of money by using some well-known star. If you cast Jeremy Irons as another rambling wizard or what have you, you know you’re making money, although any old bugger could have done it.
      2.I came across some interesting things about Hitchcock and Polanski, while they were working with Tippi Hedren and Faye Dunawaye,who were both method actresses.At one point, they both asked the respective directors what the motivation of the character was. Hitchcock said, ‘Go ask Lehman (the scriptwriter). He wrote it.’ Polanski said, ‘Say your fucking lines. Your salary is your motivation.’
      3.What do directors actually do when casting? Sure, David, you are correct that they do not pick somebody off the street, usually. But what they do (or whoever is casting for them) is have these people say some lines, and perhaps move in certain ways as well. I gather that saying those lines well is the most important. The rest of the directions could conceivably be followed by anyone. For example, who could not follow things like ‘Now you need to look concerned’ or ‘Now you are sad’ or ‘Off with that smile, this is not comedy’?
      3. There were cases in the history of cinema where directors worked with non-professionals, basically people off the street. Some of the Italian neo-realists, if not all, did that at some point in their career, Visconti among them. Also Passolini. The results were sometimes masterpieces, sometimes good films, in any case these people with no training whatsoever seemed to be able to follow directions pretty well. I take this historical example to be very good evidence for my theory.
      So, why can some non-professional play a fisherman very well, but to play a Mafia boss we need to get in this professional actor called Pacino? I suspect that what is going on here is a case of historical distortion: before their great roles, neither Pacino, nor Bogart, nor whoever else, were well-known. They just happened to be there, the director liked their face and then they made movie history. But it is the movies that made them, it is not the actors that made the movies great. In retrospect, we tend to project this greatness upon Pacino or Bogart, forgetting that it was the movies that made them into who they are now.
      4. I suspect,although I can’t be sure about this, that my view would be supported if we knew more about the casting process. I suspect that there is a lot of ‘If you can’t get me X, then Y will do. But Y is working on stg else, so why don’t you call Z and see if he’s available’ going on. There’s this sort of interchangeability in the air, it seems to me, when the movie is first being cast, and the director will work with pretty much anyone.
      5. The directors themselves, since they go to film school, are already steeped in this lore about talent and such, and they are being fed the same story, so it is hard not to be confused. It’s like reading Hegel and being told how great Hegel is, and believing yourself that you understand Hegel, when in fact there may be nothing in Hegel to understand.
      6. We may be focusing too much on high-profile movies. There are legions of B-movies which star unknown but good actors. If some of these movies are bad, they are not so because of the actors. In fact, it is really hard to find a bad actor in a movie these days. All of them are good. Since I see no question-beginning way of defending the view that there’s more to Pacino than to any of these people, I take it that they are just as talented as him (although not so lucky, since they are stuck playing in B movies). If there is something called ‘thespian greatness’, then a lot of the population would have it, by this reasoning (because there are a lot of B movies with a lot of people in them who say their lines just right). I prefer to conclude instead that there isn’t, and that Pacino is more like ordinary folk than we think.

  3. Nates says:

    I’ve been meaning to comment on this review for a while. I liked the movie a lot, and Josh’s review surprised me, as we often have similar cultural preferences. (See: Dostoevsky.) I’m very fond of Lincoln (the person), so I’m aware this could be clouding my judgment. (I went into the theater fearing Spielberg’s heavy-handed treatment, but really wanting to like the movie.) Nonetheless, I found Josh’s critique of the movie unpersuasive, so I thought I’d push back a little.

    First, on the acting. Josh writes: “I stand by my long-held suspicion that the average member of the public is in no position to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of any actor.” Perhaps this is true. I doubt it, but I won’t argue the point. Still, even if it is true, it doesn’t show that the acting in the movie is unimpressive. After all, the average public isn’t all that good at identifying great baseball players. Or car mechanics. Or presidents. But it doesn’t follow that greatness isn’t real. Surely the more relevant question is what movie experts (sophisticated movie-watchers, professional critics — or whatever) think. And there seems to be a clear consensus that Daniel Day-Lewis has again put in a remarkable performance as Lincoln. This may have something to do with achieving a kind of realism, but it’s just as much about being able to convey the emotional richness of a character in an aesthetically satisfying way. DDL does this, and this is one reason the movie is good.

    Josh agreed that the script is good, so this also speaks in favor of the movie.

    OK, on to the hagiography objection. Josh writes: “the hero of such a movie is immediately and unquestioningly invested with a sort of moral rectitude which he has not earned.” This is probably our biggest point of disagreement. The problem isn’t that the claim is false, but that it gets the direction of the movie backward. The point of the opening scene is to give us the Lincoln we think we know: the hero on the five-dollar bill. The rest of the movie then complicates that picture. We see Lincoln stooping to various unsavory political tactics in order to get the emancipation proclamation passed: bribing congressmen, lying to his advisers, and so on. We see Lincoln being tempted to go beyond his constitutional powers, and sometimes doing so. We see him unable to handle his family obligations. In the scene with his female African servant on the front steps of the white house, we get at least a hint of his ongoing racism and his skepticism about the future of racial equality. (My biggest complaint about the movie is that it doesn’t sufficiently pursue this last point. The book Team of Rivals does a much better job of revealing Lincoln’s complex and conflicted views on race.) Of course, the goal isn’t to reveal Lincoln as a villain. But what emerges is a much more morally complex, uncertain, interesting character than is typical of these sorts of movies. Of course, there are plenty of scenes that do emphasize his greatness. But, you know, he was great, so what do you expect? The point is that the movie doesn’t limit itself to this. When Josh describes the rest of the movie as pure hagiography, I find myself wondering if we were watching the same movie!

    Next: how the movie deals with the immorality of slavery. There’s an ongoing, fascinating discussion of this point at Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog at The Atlantic. ( — one of the best blogs on the internet, incidentally, now that Hilzoy has hung up her keyboard.) Coates’ point is that there’s a long tradition in Hollywood of avoiding criticism of the south: from Gone with the Wind onward. (See here for details: What’s refreshing about Lincoln is precisely that there are no apologetics for the defenders of the gentile, southern way of life. Perhaps its just the Kantian in me, but I don’t see the movie’s assumption of universal human equality as a big problem.

    Having said that, I get the concern about a kind of distancing move: “back then, people were prejudiced, but now we’re past that.” And I agree that it’s important to understand the conditions that led to slavery — and to recognize how similar conditions are at work in our still unjust society. The movie doesn’t really speak to this point. But it wasn’t obvious to me that the movie was encouraging the “those silly racists” picture either. As I recall, a number of the congressmen objecting to the proclamation fear the effect of emancipation on the economy of the United States. More worry about its effect on the war effort. It’s by no means a sophisticated sociological analysis, but it’s not nothing.

    OK, that’s probably more than enough for a blog comment. So, in conclusion, Lincoln is good. Josh is wrong. Thanks.

  4. Josh says:

    All right – I’ll try to speak to some of Nathan’s replies. I trust that in a few instances, there are irreducible matters of taste that it’s not productive to disagree about – I’m generally skeptical of the invocation of “de gustibus non est disputandum” – but, when it comes to some questions (especially matters of emphasis and degree) it’s probably inescapable. So I’ll try to argue about the points that are worth arguing about.

    Regarding acting: “even if it is true [that most people can’t identify good acting], it doesn’t show that the acting in the movie is unimpressive.” – I agree. I’m generally on Juan’s side when it comes to the more basic question of acting, but the only point I was trying to make was that it is frustrating to hear the average bourgeois moron with zero sense of creativity, aesthetics or whatever, make pronouncements like “Lewis was excellent!” Something about even just reduction to the last names in discussions like this rankles me. Their voices sound so much like the sort of fawning critics always quoted on commercials – it’s just so much Orwellian strips-of-words inanity to me. But I did not mean to make a substantive claim about whether any of the acting was good. I more meant to illustrate what I was not going to argue about.

    “Josh agreed that the script is good, so this also speaks in favor of the movie.” – I was really just granting something for the sake of argument. I actually found it tin-eared, sanctimonious, and full of that sort of too-obvious allusion meant to reinforce the average idiot’s claim to being mildly intelligent. I just didn’t want to argue the point 🙂 This is one of those de-gustibus moments. I obviously can’t say whether a script is “good” or “bad” in the abstract. I’m more interested in what some aspects of it reveal about our society and our politics.

    “But what emerges is a much more morally complex, uncertain, interesting character than is typical of these sorts of movies” – this is probably more a matter of differing reasonable perceptions than anything else – but I found this statement to really push the bounds of the principle of charity. Like, you CAN see Lincoln’s portrayal in this way, but you really need to squeeze the meaning out of every possible minor ambiguity to see things like this. He was shown as being *ridiculously* certain, at almost every turn. All the aphorisms, all the citations of philosophy and the Bible, history, supreme court reasoning, etc. No one ever contests his reasoning in anything like a credible way; even just placing him at the center of things means the logic of the film prevents such complexity from really developing.

    I suspect when Nathan writes “than is typical of these sorts of movies”, that’s doing a lot of the work. I think I agree – it’s better than what you get in “these sorts of movies” (i.e., reductive moralistic John Grisham things like “The Client”). But “these sorts of movies” are sort of what I was objecting to in the first place. _Lincoln_ may be the tallest midget, but so what?

    Lincoln is presented as thoughtful and aware of human finitude – yes – but in a way that is ultimately just all the more hagiographical. He’s an ideal Weberian (as in “Politics as a Vocation”) compromise between “here I stand; I can do no other” and Bismarckian realpolitik. But there is no STRUGGLE – he’s already become such a perfect specimen of moral reasoning before the movie starts. There is no moment of disallusionment about idealism, NOR is there any sort of moment of enlightenment about the limits of realpolitik. Everything is already settled in his mind, and all of the film’s major characters line up neatly on one or the other side of that chasm. None of them move from side to side either – the representatives who switch their votes do so for reasons that made them look just buffoonish – and representing politicians as buffoons is, of course, nothing new, original, creative or revealing. There is the possible exception of Stephens, who I originally said I thought was a rare bright spot in the otherwise static characterization of this movie.

    “Perhaps its just the Kantian in me, but I don’t see the movie’s assumption of universal human equality as a big problem.” – This probably gets at the most interesting point of disagreement.

    Obviously, the Kantian assumption is probably true, and forms the basis of a large swath of our politics (I think that at least on days when I’m not wanting to throw my remote at the TV watching Mitch McConnell speak…) Still, the movie advances a very simplistic notion of morality, one which I think sheds light on Hegel’s critique of Kant. I don’t want to have that argument in full, but just about a smaller aspect of it. I was struck, in reading Nathan’s reply, by one way in which we can understand Hegel’s criticism in light of the *depiction* of moral struggle in this movie.

    This movie basically presents two poles of morality. First, there is the totally abstract idealism of the Euclid scene with the clerks. Next, there is the totally pessimistic cynical nihilism of the voter-buyers from Albany. Lincoln of course facilitates the interaction between the two, and therein rests the film’s understanding of “politics as the art of the possible.” Fine.

    But what does this show us about the actual *evolution* of moral standpoints? Very little. If you are the sort of person who thinks the Euclidean argument applies to slaves, you are anti-slavery; if you are the sort of person who thinks it does not, you are pro-slavery. How do we, as a society, get from one to the other? On this film’s version, that’s just from the charisma of individual political actors like Lincoln.

    We never see any substantive discussion or enactment of the minor premise of the Euclidean argument – “slaves are human beings”; we only hear about “all equal things are equal to one another.” What were the material, ideological, economic, aesthetic, religious forces etc. at work that left people on one or the other side of this line? On those questions, this movie is woefully silent. There is one representative who “doesn’t like black people” because his brother was murdered by one. There are three southern officials who fear it will “ruin their economy” and “their traditions.” They get about one sentence each. These are such ridiculous straw-people that nothing about social change is revealed in them.

    A better movie about the 13th amendment would have made a better attempt to depict the moral ambiguity at the heart of the debate. It would have considered the *ways* in which both northerners’ and southerners’ life-conditions were actually at stake. It would have developed a sense of privilege at risk for the white people, and a sense of the horror and depravity to which the black people were subjected for the purpose of that privilege, and the sort of lives that generated. As it is, the black people are there as silent and largely grateful listeners. it’s just an abstract moral-political debate among white people, between those who are clearly irrational (thinking blacks aren’t people) and those who are clearly rational (who think they are).

    If that’s *all* the debate had been, the proposition would have been resolved hundreds of years sooner. There were (and are) far more powerful forces at work in institutional racism than this movie would have us believe. And I argue that’s not just a coincidence – such a reductionist understanding of the institutional nature of racism and inequality is part and parcel with our own society’s continual refusal to engage with such questions. We love hearing stories that make us think this is as it should be. So this movie is more about us, and our vision of how race and politics interact – than it is about the 19th century.

    So – I guess what I’m trying to say is, given the relative lack of a theory of moral *development* inherent in the Kantian approach, it’s no wonder that a movie that endorses that at its core is unable to present, as Nathan acknowledges, “a sophisticated sociological analysis.” And that *is* a point against Kantian ethics, at least in the realm of storytelling. It’s also a huge point against _Lincoln_.

    Even if it is well done (a point I don’t wish to concede), what does this movie add to the Great White Men theory of history? And why do we need to spend hundreds of millions of dollars re-affirming it?

  5. Nates says:

    OK, diminishing returns and all that, but…
    “He was shown as being *ridiculously* certain, at almost every turn.”
    This is just plainly false. He spends much of the movie torn about what to do. He changes strategy: first distancing himself from the political shenanigans, then becoming directly involved. The pivotal scene of the movie involves him sitting in the telegraph station, not knowing what to do. He starts down one direction, cancels the message, finally goes a different way. Likewise, he’s unsure what to do with his oldest son, and again changes course, allowing him to join the military. He’s repeatedly criticized for taking too long to reach decisions. I could go on.

  6. Josh says:

    I just didn’t see those scenes like that. The sort of “uncertainty” he seems to display is not very deliberative – and dare I say, not that well-acted. Those scenes are very clearly shown as having predetermined outcomes and one gets the sense we’re just waiting for what we know is supposed to happen to in fact happen. Admittedly, this is historical fiction, but there is a way to depict uncertainty within historical context, and this is not it.

    And again – when he “deliberates” all he is shown to do is weigh a choice between obviously moral “Euclidian” action and obviously immoral realpolitik. The uncertainty is very one-dimensional.

  7. Pingback: First Thoughts about The Grand Budapest Hotel | Original Positions

  8. Pingback: Notes of a Native Son – Part 1 | Original Positions

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *